Trial court may not use “best interest” test to deny enforcement of mediated settlement agreement

In In re Lee, 2013 Tex. LEXIS 809 (Tex. Sept. 27, 2013) 1 the Texas Supreme Court in the preamble to the opinion states

“If a mediated settlement agreement meets [certain requirements], a party is entitled to judgment on the mediated settlement agreement notwithstanding . . . another rule of law.”Tex. Fam. Code § 153.0071(e) (emphasis added). We are called upon today to determine whether a trial court abuses its discretion in refusing to enter judgment on a statutorily compliant mediated settlement agreement (MSA) based on an inquiry into whether the MSA was in a child’s best interest. We hold that this language means what it says: a trial court may not deny a motion to enter judgment on a properly executed MSA on such grounds. Accordingly, we conditionally grant the writ of mandamus. (emphasis added)

The Court framed the issue thusly:

The sole issue before us today is whether a trial court presented with a request for entry of judgment on a validly executed MSA may deny a motion to enter judgment based on a best interest inquiry.6 While Texas trial courts have numerous tools at their disposal to safeguard children’s welfare, the Legislature has clearly directed that, subject to a very narrow exception involving family violence, denial of a motion to enter judgment on an MSA based on a best interest determination, where that MSA meets the statutory requirements of section 153.0071(d) of the Texas Family Code, is not one of those tools. Accordingly, the trial court in this case abused its discretion by denying entry of judgment on the MSA and setting the matter for trial.7

In re Lee, 2013 Tex. LEXIS 809, 9 (Tex. Sept. 27, 2013)

Suffice it to say that there were grounds alleged upon which a trial court could reasonably conclude that enforcing the MSA was not in the best interest of the child. Nevertheless, with this bright-line ruling it is clear that even the most egregious circumstance calling for a different “best interest” result will not deter enforcement of the MSA. What then, does this mean?

It means that in a mediation, if all other prerequisites for a viable MSA are met, parents can agree to terms calculated to result in harm to a child. A couple of questions come to mind. First, does the mediator have ethical issues resulting from consummation of the MSA if he believes that harm is likely to result to a child? Does he have an obligation to make a referral to the Texas Dept of Family & Protective Services?

If TDFPS learns of the agreement, could there be sufficient grounds from the MSA alone for a removal — after a hearing or even an emergency removal?

Questions. Perhaps answers will follow. In the meanwhile, the opinion is worth reading for its extensive analysis and reasoning.